An Open Letter to Special Education Teachers About the Transformational Power of Family Engagement

April 27, 2017 12:00 PM
by / Topics: Improving Family Engagement

Dear Future, New, and Seasoned Special Education Teacher,

Being a parent takes balance. Parents raise their children with love, guidance, discipline, inspiration, and high expectations. No, I’m not a parent. But as a special education teacher, I’ve partnered with them enough to admire parents, especially those of children with special needs.

I teach special education, provide one-on-one in-home therapy to children with special needs, and babysit. I’m also a Teacher Trainer for Flamboyan Foundation; in this role, I build the capacity of other teachers and professionals in the field as we come together to explore effective ways to engage and academically partner with families to improve student outcomes. The Flamboyan Teacher Trainer in me works to shifts mindsets so that teachers see the value in family engagement. But the teacher in me knows the value of family engagement first-hand.

Special education students have unique needs and authentic parent-teacher partnerships ensure they have positive learning experiences. Every parent wants what’s best for their child. Flamboyan has taught me that we, as educators, must support families to play five roles in guiding their child’s academic success: monitoring their child’s performance, advocating for their child, communicating high expectations, supporting learning at home, and guiding their child’s education. Before we do this, we must have a foundation of trust and regular, personalized, ongoing communication. Despite the regular, positive, personalized communication that we practice as educators, there will always be room for improvement and gap areas that we need to address so that we are engaging all families.

Two years ago, I met a student’s mother to talk about our class. I could tell she didn’t trust me – yet. She repeatedly declined a home visit. She was nervous about her son’s safety, and even offered to sit outside the classroom to keep an eye on him. This year, it amazes me how much we’ve communicated and how the relationship has shifted since I’ve gained her trust by practicing effective family engagement strategies.

There are discussions of excitement, celebration, gratitude, and appreciation. There are also conversations about challenging behaviors. I’ve received text messages of pictures of her child and his family celebrating holidays over school breaks. This week, she sent me a video of him practicing sight words at home – one of his new Individualized Education Plan (IEP) goals. I’m thrilled she is working with him at home, specifically on his goals. Over the year she has also worked with the special education team to maintain consistent high expectations for him to communicate what he wants, which has increased his functional communication and decreased tantrums. She has reached a point of trust and is thankful for the communication and care we give.

I credit this success to the Special Education Fellowship I participated in two years ago with Flamboyan. The opportunity challenged my thinking. I designed two projects to target gaps in how I supported my parents to help guide their child’s education. I re-vamped my communication system by creating personalized communication binders and did extended home visits. I increased home visit participation from 33% to 68%, meeting with families for up to 3 hours.

I intentionally work very hard on my relationships with every family to build trust and establish regular, open communication, two crucial components of Flamboyan’s framework for effective family engagement. Thus, I have seen growth in every child’s academics, life skills, and behaviors.

Whether you’re a seasoned SpEd teacher or an aspiring one, I won’t lie to you. Family engagement work takes time and energy. But here’s a promise I can keep (and I don’t make a promise unless I can keep it): the trust and relationships you’ll form with families is irreplaceable, and the growth you’ll see in your students is incredible.


Jenna Wiesenhahn, M.Ed.H.D
PreK CES/Autism Teacher, Barnard Elementary School
Teacher Trainer, Flamboyan Foundation